The story of Jesus walking on the water follows the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand. As they did then, they do once again. They try to find the resources within themselves to resolve the problem–but without success. Once again, they learn that they need Jesus to save the situation–and themselves.
While Mark 6:45-52 and John 6:16-21 also tell this story, Matthew is the only one to include the story of Peter attempting to walk on the water to meet Jesus. While Matthew uses Mark as one of his sources, his ending for this story is quite different. In Mark, the story ends with the disciples being astounded, not understanding, and having hardened hearts. In Matthew, the disciples worship Jesus and acknowledge that he is the Son of God.
This story is similar to Matthew 8:23-27, where a storm threatened to sink the boat while Jesus slept. In that story, Jesus rebuked the winds and the sea, and they obeyed him. In both stories:
• The disciples are in a boat.
• There is a sense in which Jesus is absent from the disciples. In Matthew 14, he sends the disciples ahead by themselves. In Matthew 8, he was in the boat, but he was asleep.
• The disciples are caught in a storm and afraid.
• Jesus uses the word, oligopistos (“of little faith”) to rebuke the disciples.
• The disciples are amazed at Jesus’ power. In the Matthew 8 story, they said, “What kind of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” In the Matthew 14 story, they say, “You are truly the Son of God.”
Matthew is writing at a time when Christians are being persecuted. By this time, Peter has most likely been crucified. The two storm stories address issues of danger, fear and faith.
This passage brought great comfort to the early Christians. While not spared suffering and death, they were confident that Christ would save them even if they were to die.
MATTHEW 14:22-23. HE WENT UP INTO THE MOUNTAIN BY HIMSELF TO PRAY
22Immediately Jesus made (Greek: enankasen—compels) the disciples get into the boat, and to go ahead of him to the other side, while he sent the multitudes away. 23After he had sent the multitudes away, he went up into the mountain by himself to pray. When evening had come, he was there alone.
“Immediately Jesus made (enankasen) the disciples get into the boat” (v. 22a). Jesus makes (enankasen—compels) the disciples get into the boat and go to the other side. They are not being rebellious or foolhardy, but obedient. The difficulties that they experience on the sea are not of their own making, but stem from their compliance with Jesus’ command.
“After he had sent the multitudes away, he went up into the mountain by himself to pray” (v. 23). Rather than remaining with the crowd to curry their favor after the great feeding (vv. 13-21), Jesus dismisses them and goes up the mountain to pray. “Prayer, …unlike political advancement, is central to his mission” (Keener, 256). The location on a mountain signals that this is an important moment for Jesus. He tried to find solitude earlier, but the crowds interrupted him (14:13). Now he finds the opportunity to pray. Matthew tells us that he is “by himself” and “alone”—emphasizing the solitary nature of his prayer.
It is only here and at Gethsemane (26:36) that Matthew reports Jesus in prayer. Both were difficult moments. Here, Herod has turned unfavorable attention to Jesus (14:1-12). At Gethsemane, Jesus will prepare himself for death.
John 6:15 tells us that Jesus withdraws because the crowd wants to “take him by force, to make him king”. It is possible that he sends the disciples ahead so that they cannot get caught up in the king-making effort (Morris, 380-381).
MATTHEW 14:24-27. IT IS I! DON’T BE AFRAID
24But the boat was now in the middle (Greek: studious pollous—many stadia) of the sea, distressed by the waves, for the wind was contrary. 25In the fourth watch of the night (Greek: tetarte de phulake tes nuktos—in the fourth watch of the night), Jesus came to them, walking on the sea. 26When the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, “It’s a ghost!” and they cried out for fear. 27But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying “Cheer up! It is I! Don’t be afraid” (Greek:me phobeisthe).
“But the boat was now in the middle (studious pollous—many stadia) of the sea, distressed by the waves, for the wind was contrary” (v. 24). The boat is studious pollous—many stadia—from land. A stadion is about 600 feet (182 meters), and John tells us that the disciples had gone about twenty-five to thirty stadia—about three miles (5 km) (John 6:19), which would put them near the middle of the sea, which is about 13 miles (21 km) long and 8 miles (13 km) wide.
It is a frightening thing to be in a small boat, far from shore, in a storm, but neither Matthew nor John tell us that the disciples are afraid of the storm.
“In the fourth watch of the night” (v. 25a). The fourth watch is 3:00 to 6:00 a.m., and the disciples have moved from a big day with the crowds (the Feeding of the Five Thousand) directly to the boat and the storm. Not only have they been awake many hours, but also it is exhausting work to keep a small boat bailed and on course in the middle of the sea—in the midst of a storm.
“Jesus came to them, walking on the sea” (v. 25b). “In Biblical literature, the sea is often represented as the abode of demonic forces hostile to God. In the Apocalypse, the final reign of God will mean that the sea no longer exists (21:1)” (Craddock, 400). To have command over the sea is God’s prerogative. The Hebrew Scriptures tell of God walking on water or making a way through the water for the Israelites (Job 9:8; 38:16; Psalm 77:19; Isaiah 43:16; 51:9-10; Habakkuk 3:5), but never of a man walking on water. By walking on water, Jesus demonstrates his Godly identity.
Matthew has identified Jesus as Emmanuel—God with us (1:23)—and this story reinforces that role. As noted above, at the time of the writing of this Gospel, Matthew’s church is weathering a storm of persecution. These Christians are not in rebellion, but are faithfully serving God. The story of the disciples on the sea, therefore, mirrors exactly the situation of Matthew’s church. It holds a promise that Jesus comes to Christians in the midst of the storm—that the storm does not hold the upper hand—that Christ is present with us in the storm and redeems us from the storm.
Scholars have asked whether this story is truly historical. Some have proposed that Jesus was walking on a sandbar near the shore. However, this story clearly places Jesus far from land, and these men, experienced on the sea, would not have been easily fooled. Others have proposed that this story is misplaced, and is, in reality, a post-resurrection story. They are more comfortable with the idea that a post-resurrection Jesus could walk on water than a pre-resurrection Jesus. That distinction, however, seems not very compelling.
The real question is whether Jesus really worked miracles. If he could heal the sick without medicine and feed hungry crowds with only a little food, there is no reason to believe that he could not walk on water. If no miracles are true, then we have to question the resurrection. If the resurrection is false, the core of our faith is hollow and we might as well shut the church doors. We find ourselves on a slippery slope when we deny the reality of miracles.
There is no way to prove conclusively that Jesus worked miracles—belief in miracles and resurrection are a matter of faith, not proof. The best evidence of miracles is experiential—the effect that these miracles, particularly the resurrection, had on the lives of the first disciples—and the changes that we see in our lives and the lives of others as a result of our/their relationship with Christ.
“When the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, ‘It’s a ghost!’ and they cried out for fear” (v. 26.) When the disciples see Jesus, they are afraid. The storm, while dangerous, is familiar. The disciples know what to expect from a storm and what to do to keep the boat afloat. They do not know anything about men walking on water far from land, and fear that they are seeing a ghost. Herod’s threatening presence was mentioned just before the feeding of the five thousand (14:1-12). Indeed, they must wonder whether, in the few hours since they departed in the boat, Herod might have had Jesus murdered. That is certainly consistent with their comment that Jesus is a ghost.
Jesus responds with a threefold statement: “Cheer up! It is I! Don’t be afraid” (me phobeisthe) (v. 27).
• Jesus uses the first phrase, “Cheer up” (Greek: tharseite—have courage—be of good cheer) elsewhere in this Gospel to hearten a paralytic (9:2) and a woman with a hemorrhage (9:22). It is not a rebuke but an encouragement.
• The second phrase, “It is I” (Greek: ego eimi—literally “I am”) is God’s name (Exodus 3:14). The words, “I am” are close to the center both of this story and of this Gospel (chapter 14 of 28 chapters), and deal with the central issue of this Gospel—the identity of Jesus. He is the Son of God (4:3, 6; 8:29; 14:33; 26:63; 27:40, 54). He is Emmanuel—God with us (1:23).
• In this Gospel, an angel uses the third phrase, “Don’t be afraid” to reassure Joseph (1:20) and the women at the empty tomb (28:5, 10). Jesus uses it to reassure the Twelve as they go on their mission (10:26, 28, 31) and the disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration (17:7). Again, it is an encouragement rather than a rebuke.
Augustine comments: “The ship which carries the disciples, i.e., the Church, is tossed and shaken by the tempests of temptation; and the contrary wind, i.e., the devil her adversary, rests not, and strives to hinder her from arriving at rest. But greater is ‘He who maketh intercession for us'” (quoted in Gardner, 232).
This story reassures Matthew’s church that, even in the midst of persecution, they need not fear—Jesus is present with them. It offers the same reassurance to us in times of illness, death, persecution, or other troubles. It prepares us for times when things are going badly—or well.
Adversity is not a sign of God’s displeasure or prosperity a sign of God’s pleasure. Wealth does not equate to God’s favor or poverty to unfavor. Illness is not a sign of inadequate faith or health a sign of great faith. Jesus says that God “makes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust” (5:45).
Paradoxically, the storms of life can be a means of blessing. When things are going badly, our hearts are more receptive to Jesus. A broken heart is often a door through which Christ can find entry. He still comes to us in the midst of our troubles, saying, “Cheer up! It is I! Don’t be afraid.”
MATTHEW 14:28-31. YOU OF LITTLE FAITH, WHY DID YOU DOUBT?
28Peter answered him and said, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the waters.”
29He said, “Come!”
Peter stepped down from the boat, and walked on the waters to come to Jesus. 30But when he saw that the wind was strong, he was afraid, and beginning to sink, he cried out, saying, “Lord, save me!”
31Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand, took hold of him, and said to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
“Peter answered him and said, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the waters ‘” (v. 28). This is the only Gospel to tell this story of Peter and Jesus:
• It is, in part, the story of Peter, an impetuous man whose spontaneity is not matched by his stability. Like the seed sown on rocky soil, he sprouts quickly but dies back just as quickly. He leaps before he looks, suddenly becomes aware of his peril, and then falters. We must note that seeing the resurrected Jesus will soon transform Peter. After the resurrection, Peter will quit being a flake and start being a rock, as his name suggests.
• It is, in part, the story of a man testing God. Peter begins by saying, “Lord, if it is you,” echoing the devil’s tempting, “If you are the Son of God” (4:3, 6). When Peter says, “command me to come to you on the waters” (4:3, 6), he echoes the devil’s challenge, “command that these stones become bread” (4:3).
• It is, in part, the story of Peter (the disciple) telling Jesus (the master) what to do.
• However, it is also, in part, the story of a disciple asking permission from the master. Peter asks for a command, and acts only once the master gives the command.
• It is, in part, a bridge story between the despair of the fearful disciples of verse 26 and the faith of the worshipful disciples of verse 32.
• In its larger context, it is the story of Matthew’s church, fearful and confused, looking for something to grasp in the midst of its suffering.
• In its largest context, it is the story of every Christian—our story too—as we move back and forth between doubt and faith—sometimes focused on the storm and sometimes focused on Jesus.
“He said, ‘Come!’ Peter stepped down from the boat, and walked on the waters to come to Jesus”(v. 29). For Peter, this is a moment both of weakness and strength. He doubts, but wants to believe. He fears, but steps out of a perfectly good boat into the storm.
“But when he saw that the wind was strong, he was afraid, and beginning to sink, he cried out, saying, ‘Lord, save me!'” (v. 30). Peter calls out, “Lord, save me!”—expressing faith even through his fear.
None of the Gospels tells us how far Peter walks but, when he falters, he is close enough to Jesus that Jesus can reach out and catch him. Jesus says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (v. 31b). This is the only place that Jesus applies “you of little faith” to one disciple rather than the group as a whole. Note that Jesus first saves Peter, then rebukes him.
But, if Peter’s faith is imperfect, it is nevertheless bolder than the faith of the other disciples in the boat.
MATTHEW 14:32-33. THOSE WHO WERE IN THE BOAT WORSHIPED HIM
32When they got up into the boat, the wind ceased. 33Those who were in the boat came and worshiped him, saying, “You are truly the Son of God!”
“When they got up into the boat, the wind ceased” (v. 32). Just as Jesus has Godly power over the water, so also he has Godly power over the wind. To the extent that this is a parable of Matthew’s persecuted church, the stilled wind stands as a promise that persecution will eventually cease.
“Those who were in the boat came and worshiped him, saying, ‘You are truly the Son of God'” (v. 33). In this Gospel, we hear Jesus’ sonship proclaimed by a voice from heaven (3:17)—in Peter’s confession (16:16)—and by the Roman centurion at the cross (27:54). Jesus’ identity is a major concern of this Gospel.
The end of this story is much different than in the Gospel of Mark, where the disciples end up confused and hard of heart.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2009, Richard Niell Donovan